Abortion Reduction: Two Critiques

Science, technology, and life.
July 29 2009 2:04 PM

Abortion Reduction: Two Critiques

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Several Catholic bloggers have responded to Monday's piece on the new


. Two of their points are particularly worth addressing. First, this objection from Rick Garnett at


I would be more enthusiastic about a compromise proposal that including increases in [welfare] spending *if* the the pro-abortion-rights side were actually compromising. But ... that side is, generally speaking, not giving anything up. Indeed, they are asking pro-lifers to agree that it is "compromise" to accept the roll-back of the gains they have secured. What is happening, instead, is that many of us who are pro-life are being asked to accept a legal—indeed, a constitutional—regime in which citizens are disabled from meaningfully regulating (as opposed to financially disincentivizing) abortion. ...

That would be a fair objection, if the pro-lifers supporting the bill were indeed accepting abortion's legality. But they aren't. Read their statements . Several of them make clear that they're going to keep right on working to outlaw abortion. They're supporting this bill anyway, because they think it will help the bottom line: fewer abortions.

Second, Charles Camosy, one of the bill's pro-life endorsers, has elaborated on his objections to its contraceptive provisions. In a post at Commonweal , he writes :

I wonder what people think about pro-lifers (and particularly Catholic pro-lifers) compromising their views on contraception to support a bill like this? I was asked to giving a supporting statement (in particular because, not surprisingly, they found themselves in need [of] pro-life Catholic moral theologians), but I had about a difficult, three-day-long e-mail conversation with the person who asked me before I gave one. I don't think the contraceptive provisions of the bill will lessen the abortion rate (in fact, they may [make] it worse in promoting as a 'solution' a mentality which continues to perpetuate the moral and actual divide between sex and procreation and thus, to a large extent, the logic of abortion), but because (1) there was so much other good stuff in this bill and (2) it is a major step in building common ground and beginning to find a way out of this horrific mess of a culture war, I decided to offer provisional support while making my making my reservations known.

At the American Catholic , a commenter expresses a similar concern :

[I]f one seeks to increase the amount of sex that people who think they are currently unable to support a child have (which is what the pushing of "safe sex" amounts to) the failure rate of popular means of contraception will inevitably result in an increase in the number of unplanned pregnancies ...

I respect these concerns, but the data don't support them. To repeat :

On average, contraception lowers your odds of pregnancy by a factor of seven. If you're capable of having seven times as much sex, congratulations. The rest of us will get pregnant less often, not more. ...
Among [low-income] women, the percentage using contraception declined from 1995 to 2002. As predicted by contraception opponents, the rate of sexual activity also declined, though only slightly. Even better, from a pro-life standpoint, when these women got pregnant unintentionally, the percentage who chose abortion fell . Less contraception, less sex, more women choosing life. So, the abortion rate among these women went down, right? Wrong. It went up. The decline in contraception overwhelmed the decline in sexual activity, resulting in a higher rate of unintended pregnancy. And the increase in unintended pregnancy overwhelmed the increase in women choosing life, resulting in more abortions. From a pro-life standpoint, trading contraception for abstinence and a "culture of life" was a net loss.

Critics of the contraceptive approach to abortion reduction are right that contraceptive availability, by itself, doesn't guarantee a decline in unintended pregnancy. That's because contraception doesn't work unless people use it. But that isn't an argument against contraception. It's an argument for teaching and preaching its use . And yes, that's a more realistic goal than abstinence.




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